Harry (Graham Kennedy) sets Bung (John Hargreaves) straight about the War: the 'commos’ will win and no-one at home in Australia will thank them for going. He tells Dawson (Graeme Blundell) that the rich don’t fight wars, but that poor Australians are always lining up to take part. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
A neat encapsulation of some fairly common arguments at the time. The naiveté of these young soldiers about what they’re engaged in is a fairly typical stance in Australian war films, where typically, men would rather fight first and think about it later. (See clip one, Gallipoli). This naiveté could be seen as a way of deflecting questions of responsibility – although in this case, these men are volunteers, not conscripts.
After his 21st birthday, Bill (John Jarratt) goes to fight in Vietnam, as part of the Australian forces. He’s in the Special Air Services, elite professional soldiers who look down on the ‘nashos’, the conscripted troops. Bill’s best mate is the jovial and older Harry (Graham Kennedy), a likeable cynic. The rest include Rogers (Bryan Brown), Dawson (Graeme Blundell), Scott (Ian Gilmour) and later, Bung (John Hargreaves) – all young men who believe they’re fighting for their country.
Their daily life in camp consists of rain, beer, cards and bad food, punctuated by the sporadic excitement and terror of jungle patrols. Their numbers dwindle as their tour progresses, in a series of realistically portrayed skirmishes with the enemy. As the body count rises, Bill counts the days till he can go home, but to what? The welcome home is cold, as Harry predicted.
The Odd Angry Shot is one of the very few Australian films that deals with the Vietnam war, and it does so through the eyes of professional soldiers, rather than officers or conscripts.
It was not the Vietnam War movie that some Australian critics wanted or expected in 1979, although audiences liked it. It was popular then and continues to be revived, partly because it’s very funny, with an appealing cast of actors noted for their larrikin characteristics.
The film is based on a 1975 novella by William Nagle, which won a National Book Council award for Australian literature. Nagle died in the US in 2002 and there are conflicting reports about his military service. Some sources say he served in the US Special Forces from 1965 to 1968. The film’s producer, Sue Milliken, has said she originally thought he was in the Australian Special Air Services (SAS), but he turned out to have been an army cook (see below). The novel deals with SAS regulars stationed at Nui Dat, and most of the irreverent humour in the film comes directly from the book.
The film arrived at a time when Australia’s involvement in Vietnam was still a raw public issue. The American war in Vietnam had ended only four years before and the movie was criticised by some for not condemning Australia’s participation in absolute terms, even though the issue is discussed.
American cinema had begun a reassessment of the war in savage and rueful films like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home – both released in 1978 – and The Odd Angry Shot was not in the same mould. It was strong on larrikin humour and camp hijinks, which left it open to accusations that it treated the war as a lark. It was perhaps more accurate to say it sided firmly with the soldiers, and adopted their style of sardonic humour. That had long been a feature of Australian films about war, even as early as the 1930s (see Diggers and Forty Thousand Horsemen). It had been popular in British and American films of the 1960s (eg: The Virgin Soldiers and M*A*S*H). By the late 1970s, some Australian critics wanted something stronger and more condemnatory.
On the other hand, it was probably a more realistic portrait of an Australian soldier’s experience of Vietnam than any American movie could be – especially in its depiction of the boredom and camaraderie of life on the war’s margins. These troops are in a backwater of operations. There are hardly any Vietnamese in their daily life, no generals, and very little overt discipline. Death and killing are a feature, but infrequent. The only constants are the men they live with, so the film is about that fellowship, or what used to be called mateship.
The term mateship was already going out of fashion in 1979, but it was always popular with audiences, particularly in Australian war films. Gallipoli and Breaker Morant are both mateship films, although more preoccupied with their anti-British politics. The Odd Angry Shot, which precedes both of these, does not look for an external power to blame. Whatever its politics, its criticisms are aimed at Australia, notably the politicians who sent the troops, and the general public, whom Harry predicts will disown them on their return.
The film was made for $600,000, with full cooperation from the army and air force.
'It was a risky commercial venture making this movie in 1978,’ director Tom Jeffrey has said. ‘The Vietnam War was a dirty subject. Few people wanted to be reminded of our involvement. Remember the soldiers 'welcome home’ march didn’t happen until about seven years after the film was made. But I wasn’t making a conventional war movie. What I wanted to convey was soldiers as real people… Although the men are tough professionals, we focus on the human side of their lives. The film shows their courage, their fears, their loves and their humour – the full range of emotions shared and understood by everyone.’
Sue Milliken, the producer, has said: ‘(The novella) was written by a wild Vietnam veteran called Bill Nagle, whom we assumed had been in the SAS but eventually it turned out he had been an army cook. Nevertheless, a cook with an ear for the vernacular. The story was told from the soldiers’ point of view and was sardonically anti-war.
‘We made this film in 1978, which was only four years after the end of the war, so feelings were still very strong. The book said everything you needed to know about the misery and alienation of fighting a war which should never have been fought in the first place. It was also acerbic and funny, and it was this aspect of the piece, which we emphasised to wary investors as making the story accessible to an audience.
‘After months of perseverance, we got the cooperation of the army, although the army hierarchy was very nervous about anything to do with Vietnam. The soldiers, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more helpful. We shot for six weeks at the Land Warfare Centre at Canungra, in the hills behind the Gold Coast. The film is recognised by soldiers in all sorts of places around the world as one of the best films ever made about how a war is fought.’
Notes by Paul Byrnes
This clip shows three off-duty Australian soldiers at their camp, during their service in Vietnam. While hanging out his washing, 'Bung’ (John Hargreaves) asks the others if they think they’re doing any good by being there. An older soldier, the cynical Harry (Graham Kennedy), predicts that the 'commos’ will win. He criticises the politicians who sent them, and questions the strength of public support. This challenges young Bill’s (John Jarratt) perception of public support for the War. Another soldier, Dawson (Graeme Blundell), arrives with the news that the 'wharfies’ (waterside workers) in Australia are refusing to load the supply ships to Vietnam. Harry suggests that it is the poor who always line up to fight wars, not the rich. The lunch bell sounds and the soldiers go off to the mess hall.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
Harry and Bung are spending leisure time at the army camp. Harry is writing in a book and Bung is hanging out laundry. He sighs.
Bung Reckon we’re doing any good by being here?
Harry Not much.
Bung Why not?
Harry Because when we get home we’ll be an embarrassment to our great nation. The only bastards who’ll want to know about us are the silly buggers in this man’s army. Let’s face it we got no-one else.
Bill joins the conversation.
Bill You mean the whole attitude has changed? About the war?
Harry Yeah. And the fact that we won’t win it. We may have held the fort for a while but the commos will eventually get hold of this place, it just stands to reason.
Bung What about the people back home?
Harry Well, I suppose it’ll be just like it’s been after every other war.
Bung And how’s that?
Harry Well, a few bods will come up and pat you on the back and tell you what a great bloke you were – that’ll last about a week and then nobody’ll want to hear about it.
Bung You really think they’ll treat us like that?
Harry Five will get you ten. Oh, they’ll make a big deal out of it, probably even make it an election issue and you can bet that within five years every one of us wearing a uniform, from the chief of the general staff downwards, will have been sold out by some bloody, sticky-fingered politician.
Bung Well, what are we doing here then?
Harry You’re a soldier, the same as every other silly prick in this tossed-up, fucked-up, never-come-down land. And that’s why you’re here, because there’s no-one else. And everyone’s got to be somewhere and you’re here. So get used to it.
Harry pats Bung on the stomach. He grabs a beer and sets down to drink it. Bung walks off.
Another soldier approaches, picking his way through clotheslines.
Dawson Hey, just thought you blokes might like to know the wharfies back home are refusing to load our supply ships.
Harry That’s nice of them, isn’t it?
Dawson Yeah well, I ‘spose they reckon they’re doing the right thing. Well, after all, it is a democracy.
Bill What is?
Dawson picks up Harry’s beer to drink from it but Harry pulls it off and points to the esky.
Harry I guess if you’ve got enough money it is.
Bill Well, what’s money got to do with it?
Dawson takes the last beer from the esky. Bill reaches in a fraction later but there are no more beers.
Harry What’s money got -? OK, stupid, just take a look around the unit, or better still, the taskforce. How many silver-spoon types do you see here?
Bill None that I know of. Even the officers are pretty poor.
Harry Right! And you won’t see too many either. It’s the poor man, the shit shoveller with the arse out of his pants and two bob in his pocket, that makes Australia. Every time trouble starts there he is, standing like a fool at the recruiting office with his hand out for a rifle, while the rich boys are at home, hanging on, waiting for a commission or their fathers to get them into a safe job. And while you’re stuck overseas, with some poor bastards from the other side who are just as scared as you are shooting at you, the rich boys are at home, probably down having a bit of a slum and a chop at your bird.
Harry looks down, remembering something.
Bill What? Oh, forget it.
Someone clangs the lunch bell.
Bell clanger Mess time, you blokes. You gonna eat?
Dawson May as well. Nothing else to do.
Dawson gets up. Harry and Bill remain seated.
Bill You might have something there.
Bill gets up to go to lunch. Harry remains seated, looking thoughtful for a couple of seconds, and then he too gets up.